Everyone likes a July 4 explosion story — so here's one I survived

"Want to throw out a cherry bomb before we leave Missouri?" My cousin Maurice asked as we drove north on Highway 59 toward Shenandoah, southwest Iowa.

July 2, 2021 By Jerry Carlson  That July 2 night was 69 years ago, but I remember every moment after Maurice lit the fuse in my blue-green '41 Ford Coupe.

Here's the story, explosion by explosion.

I spent my high school summers working on the farm for my cousin, Maurice Hoxie, 27, and his father Frank, an Iowa State Senator.

Dangerous fireworks were forbidden in Iowa, but my favorite fireworks shop was just 25 miles away across the unguarded Missouri border. Tradition demanded smuggling two weeks' pay worth of three-inch firecrackers, cherry bombs, bone-jarring aerial bombs and other contraband for July 4. For Mom and Dad's enjoyment, you know.

So after a sweaty day of baling hay, Maurice and I showered and headed for Missouri after dark. My 1941 Ford was a coupe with no back seat, so we stashed our big paper bags of fireworks between us. As I drove northward toward home, Maurice lit a cigarette and dug around in the big paper bag for a cherry bomb (these were outlawed by the 1960s). He pushed open the triangular vent window on the passenger side. Both of us agreed we should toss out a salute to Missouri before we crossed the state line northbound at 60 miles an hour. 

With his live cigarette, Maurice lit the fuse. It showered sparks on his lap. He hastily tried to toss the cherry bomb through the vent window, but it bounced back inside — and dropped into a paper bag of three-inch aerial mortar bombs. Maurice muttered, "What a dumb thing for a grown man to do."

A second later, the cherry bomb exploded, followed instantly by a half-dozen big aerial bombs. Everything flashed brilliant white and green and blue as I was blown out of the driver's side door and slid down the highway. 

I couldn't hear, but could see a blurry view of my car 100 yards ahead. It had swerved left off the road into a ditch, ran up an embankment and smashed into a farm fence. I ran for the car, where flames flickered and more firecrackers flashed.

Maurice!

He was slumped over, barely conscious. "Maurice — you okay?" He pointed to his bare left leg, below the knee. "Leg's broke." And he passed out. 

All the car windows had been blown out. I slapped at the upholstery flames, and could see a one-foot hole blasted through the floorboard, right beside Maurice's leg. The blast had blown off his jeans to just above the knees. With my shirt, I snuffed out whatever flames I could see.

Nearly midnight. Highway 59 had no traffic. I put the Ford in neutral and hit the starter button. Amazingly, the flathead V8 engine throbbed alive. (I'd just installed a $400 rebuilt engine.) My hearing began to return. I shook Maurice and yelled, "Shall we try for Shenandoah?" He waved a hand — go for it.

I backed out of the woven wire fence, down the embankment and roared back onto the road. No headlights!. Wiring under the dashboard sparked and crackled; insulation had burned off.

But another miracle: My outside spotlight worked; I could just see the road through blurred vision. Wind roared through the open windshield as I floored it north toward town. Five miles short of the Shenandoah hospital, flames roared up from under the coupe's bench seat and poured out the open rear window. I hit the brakes, stopped beside the highway and partially carried Maurice about 20 yards upwind. Amazingly, we'd stopped exactly beside a farmstead. It was near midnight, but the yard light was on.

As flames billowed from all open windows of the car, I ran to the farmhouse, banged on the door. The farmer and his wife opened the door and saw my burning car. I yelled "Please call the ambulance! My cousin has a broken leg."

That kindly woman must have phoned the Shenandoah police and fire department dispatcher. Her husband helped me pump a bucket of water, but the car was in full flames except for the engine compartment. In 15 minutes, Maurice was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

I was "detained" for police questioning, just as the car's gas tank ruptured and set the road asphalt blazing. The fire truck arrived just before the fire reached the car's engine. 

It was over, except for the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel headlines, a lot of brutal teasing from my friends — and a long, exhausting summer. I took on Maurice's farm work as well as my own all through July and August. He kept a long No. 9 wire handy to scratch under his foot-to-thigh plaster cast, but never complained. Neither did his lovely wife Betty, who gave birth to her first daughter, Judy, that August 28 while Maurice was still on crutches.

Gradually I recovered my hearing. My torched eyebrows grew back; my seared eyes cleared. The burned-out body of my '41 Ford, hauled to our farm by a towing service, wound up filling a ditch west of our house. My Dad, Glenn, helped me salvage the V8 engine.

Somehow I was never fined, nor billed for the costs of firemen and law enforcement. Maybe the Iowa Highway Patrol considered that the offense occurred in Missouri.

Anyway, all the evidence had gone up in smoke.

I'm not proud of this casualty, but through the years, my professional colleagues have asked me to tell it again for their amusement and my anguish. An artist friend, Pete Cornell, even used a Pro Farmer staff celebration event to present me with a satirical box of rockets, adorned with a custom-drawn depiction of Maurice and me that July 2 night — in my '41 Ford. 

It's entirely appropriate that my fireworks escapade occurred on July 2. One of my heroes, adventurer Jack Wheeler, reminds us that the Congress of 13 states voted July 2 to approve the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. That evening, Founding Father John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on their family farm near Boston: "The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable in the history of America.”  It took Congress two more days to publish the formal Declaration, dated July 4. I encourage you to read the entire Declaration of Independence. It resonates today with the same urgency Jefferson expressed in 1776.

Enjoy lots of fireworks... and have a great Independence Day celebration!  

Burned remains of my 1941 Ford. All windows blown out. Interior totally gutted.
Not visible — a one-foot blast hole in the passenger side floorboard. Car body filled a ditch on our farm.